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Blog: The Murder of Officer Gordon Joinville

Shot down in cold blood...
On October 5, 1968, the Joinville Swim Center was opened on Kehoe Avenue in Sergeant Joinville’s honor.

The secretary of the pharmaceutical company was suspicious. A man called and said he was from Stanford Medical School and wanted to purchase 100 pounds of a particular starch used to produce pills for medical use. But he refused to leave a phone number or address and said he would pick up the starch in person one week later. The secretary called the San Mateo Police Department, which then assigned one of their officers, 34-year-old Gordon Joinville, to intercept the anonymous man at the pickup time.

On May 23, 1968, a man picked up the starch and began driving through San Mateo. Joinville followed him, eventually pulling him over near South Claremont Street and Fifth Avenue. At his nearby lumberyard, a man would later claim he saw the two men talking outside of their cars. Soon after, neighborhood children discovered Joinville’s dead body in his unmarked police car. They ran to a nearby gas station, where the staff quickly notified the police. Upon arrival, they found a note Joinville had written shortly before he was murdered with a license plate number that was quickly traced to a Zachary Ford Lillard, a 33-year-old construction worker.

A call went out to find Lillard, and two days later, he was found hiding in the backyard of a San Francisco house. Nearby was a rented U-Haul truck that contained, among other items, a rifle and two handguns. He was quickly taken into custody.

He came before a judge for an arraignment on May 28, where he was ordered to stand trial for the killing.

The media went into a frenzy tracing the backgrounds of the killer and the victim. They discovered that Joinville was a 12-year veteran of the police force and was married with two children under the age of five. In contrast, The Times described Lillard as “a known user of amphetamines and a devotee of health foods and the Rosicrucian sect.” They also noted the appearance at one of Lillard’s early court appearances of singer Joan Baez, who apparently knew him. At some point, she tried to pass him an apple. She was not successful. They also discovered that Lillard was wanted in connection with an earlier kidnapping, assault and burglary incident at a San Jose White Front store.

Bullets from one of the guns in the rented truck matched those found at the murder scene, and so Lillard went on trial for the killing in early February 1969. Lillard explained that his actions were to his existing “in a dream world…in the subconscious.” His defense attorney pushed for an insanity defense, stating: “I think you see something in him that is not in the average person. We’re dealing with a sick man. I won’t say he is legally insane… but he does have a mental abnormality.”

It was a relatively quick trial. The prosecution presented evidence and witnesses, and the defense gave neither. Upon conclusion, the jury took only eight hours to find Lillard guilty of first-degree murder. Initially, Lillard didn’t react but later slashed his left arm on Feb. 20, resulting in his being placed on a round-the-clock suicide watch.

He received the death sentence on March 13, but it would be overturned later, and he would spend the rest of his life in jail, dying at the age of 69 from cancer in 2003.

Joinville would receive full honors for his heroic death and the new public swimming pool on Kehoe Avenue would be named the Joinville Swim Center in his honor. Joinville would be the first San Mateo police officer murdered in the line of duty.

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